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Ngarinyman e-dictionary brings together linguists and community

Caroline Jones, Felicity Meakins, Processing, Shape

Date: 24 May 2021

Ngarinyman community members Joy Campbell, Christine Daly, and Mikayla Friday-Shaw will work with CoEDL CIs Caroline Jones (WSU) and Felicity Meakins (UQ) on a recently awarded Priority Languages Support Project grant from First Languages Australia. Using software designed in the CoEDL community, the team will develop a talking e-dictionary for Ngarinyman. This new resource will be developed under guidance from the community advisory group, Brain Pedwell, Joy Campbell, Lucy Pedwell and Malcolm Shaw.

Ngarinyman is a highly endangered language of northern Australia, still spoken in Yarralin, Timber Creek, Bulla and Amanbidji in the Northern Territory. Around ten Elders continue to use Ngarinyman in conversation, with younger generations speaking either Kriol that contains Ngarinyman words, or a systematic mix of Ngarinyman and Kriol.

Ngarinyman recently received funding from the Priority Languages Support Project (PLSP) to produce an e-dictionary with sound-linked headwords. Currently supporting at least 39 Indigenous languages from across Australia, the PLSP initiative is open to critically endangered languages with no current revival activity and primarily elderly speakers. It supports projects that aim to develop accessible resources that will be immediately available to assist the community with language learning and revival.

The print Ngarinyman dictionary was published in 2019 — now the community wants to create an e-dictionary so they can hear words spoken and learn pronunciation.

“As the youngest co-contributor in the Ngrinyman dictionary, I am very excited that we are moving onto the next phase of preserving the Ngarinyman language,” says Mikayla. “Language has been learnt throughout generations, and will continue to do so. The importance of language gives native speakers a sense of belonging and connection to the land, people and culture but also extends the knowledge of our ancestors to be passed down through language.”

“Print dictionaries are just the start of the journey back to language for many Indigenous communities,” adds Felicity. “The provision of sound in e-dictionaries helps community members learn how to pronounce words and embed these in their everyday language practice and more formal contexts such as language programs in schools.”

“To create the talking dictionary, community members like Mikayla Friday-Shaw are first doing training in the orthography and in dictionary use,” says Caroline. “This way community members gain a fluency in reading Ngarinyman spelling which matches their already strong receptive knowledge. Mikayla will then record the Elders at home in the NT, as they pronounce the dictionary headwords.”

The team will build the talking dictionary using WordSpinner — a free online tool developed by CoEDL alumnus Jesse Tran at WSU. Uncertainties around the continuing pandemic mean the team are spread around Australia, presenting challenges to project logistics. In this context, a technology-based project is more feasible, and the team is grateful to have the opportunity to do this work.

Photo caption: Mikayla Friday-Shaw does orthography training, using interactive online resources developed by Aboriginal team member Dakota Smith.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University